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"In this day and age, is it bad for a woman to yearn for some good, hot, anonymous sex?"
Nina Leonard sat back and took a sip from her extra-large white ceramic cup of latte, waiting for KevinWeber and Patrick Gauge's responses. She'd intended her words to be shocking. Had wanted them to reflect the chaos she'd been feeling lately after a long period of unwelcome celibacy.
The three of them were seated around the mammoth fireplace that dominated the middle of BMC, the bookstore/music center/café they jointly owned in Fantasy, Michigan, southwest of Ann Arbor. It was just after ten and although the three partners had officially closed the front doors, three customers still roamed around the cozy depths of the store. One of them, an elderly woman with a cane, peeked at the three around a stand of marked-down holiday cookbooks and Christmas CDs that would finally be packed away tomorrow when the calendar changed from January to February. The customer reminded Nina of her grandmother, bless her heart, who would have done exactly the same thing. But Gladys Leonard wouldn't have stopped at eavesdropping; she would have contributed something to the conversation. Perhaps she would even have sat down next to her to share her own erotic adventures, played out during the early Motown days of Detroit, a city that lay forty-five miles to the east of the small university town.
Nina was sprawled on the flowery, overstuffed sofa, her feet crossed on the coffee table in front of her, her large cup taking two hands to handle.
Lately, she'd been craving a man who would take two hands to handle.
"Uh-oh," Gauge said from the ottoman nearer the fire, where he sat tuning his acousticguitar.
"Have we hit the six-month mark already?"
Kevin put his own coffee mug down on the table next to the thriller he'd been reading. "Has it been that long already? Feels like just yesterday that we finally got rid of Mr. Jenkins."
Gauge chuckled. "That's because it was yesterday. That's when I spotted the sorry son-of-a-bitch browsing through the makeover section, you know, the one nearer the café."
"All the better to stalk Nina."
Nina gave an eye roll and rested her cup in her lap, her apron with the store's logo on the front still snowy white and feeling freshly starched.
"You two think you know me so well." She tucked her short blond hair behind her ear. "I believe you know me not at all."
Gauge strummed a few chords of B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone" and looked at Kevin. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't she say during lunch that we knew her better than anyone out there?"
"Mmm, yes. Just after we called her on her desire to go to Florida for Valentine's Day." Kevin glanced at her. "You love the snow and you know it."
"Are you calling me contrary?" Nina asked.
"Not at all."
"Wouldn't dream of it."
Nina took another long sip of her latte. This was usually one of her favorite times of the day, when the three of them drifted together, either at one of the café tables where they'd pick at what remained in the bakery display Nina had so carefully stocked, or in the music center where Gauge would pop in whatever blues or rock CD he'd received in that day's shipment, or here in Kevin's domain where original, leather-bound classics were stocked alongside the latest bestselling thrillers and romances.
But tonight tonight Nina felt a restless something that wouldn't be calmed by the blazing fire in the stone hearth to her left, or by the thick, white snowflakes swirling golden under the old copper streetlamps she could see through the front window.
"I caught her browsing through the erotica titles in the romance section earlier," Kevin said.
Nina nearly choked on her latte. "Ah, then that would explain it, wouldn't it?" Gauge asked, giving her a long, knowing look. "She's in need of a good orgasm."
"And in search of one, she'll wind up getting involved with the wrong man because she'll mistake the fundamental desire to mate for a relationship."
"What? Kevin Weber, you just did not use the word mate," Nina said.
"Better than screw, I think," Gauge said, putting his guitar aside and resting his well-developed forearms on his jeans-clad legs. He shrugged. "No matter the word choice, Kevin's right. How long has it been since we decided to combine our stores? Two years?"
"Three," Nina and Kevin said in unison.
"Yes, three. And in those three years, Kev here and I have watched you repeat the same cycle. First, there's all that wistful sighing and fidgeting"
"I do not fidget." Nina caught herself scratching her shoulder and stopped.
Kevin sat forward. "Then there's the flirting with every half-decent-looking guy that comes through the front doors."
"I do not flirt with customers."
The two men shared a glance. Gauge chuckled and shook his head. "Then she makes her choice, she goes out on one date, then two ."
Kevin took over. "She sleeps with him, thinks that now she's been intimate with the idiot, well, that constitutes a relationship ."
"And she spends the next six months trying to make something work that never stood a chance from the beginning."
"All because she wanted sex."
"And then it takes six months of her swearing off men before the cycle starts back up all over again."
Nina gaped at them both. "That is so not the way it happens."
"Yes it is," Gauge told her.
Nina put her cup on the coffee table and then crossed her arms over her chest, staring at them.
Okay, so maybe they had a point. Maybe she was caught in some sort of vicious cycle that left her with exes stalking her from various areas of the bookstore, wondering what they'd done wrong. Only they hadn't done anything wrong. She had. She'd chosen men who held out zero hope of keeping her interest once the sex went bad.
And it always went bad, didn't it? She'd jump into the relationship, hormones raging, and they'd spend the first few weeks mostly in bed. And then slowly, but surely, things would begin to cool off from there. Then, inevitably, would come the day when the hormonally charged air would clear, she'd look at the man across the breakfast table and finally see him for what he really was.
And she would dump him.
Okay, she wasn't as cruel as all that. But she would find a way to wiggle out of it with excuses such as the café needed more of her attention, or she was thinking about going back to school, or she'd flat-out say that they'd probably made a mistake and maybe they should think about dating other people.
"Good thing the three of us are just friends," Gauge said. "Or else she'd have kicked both of us to the curb years ago."
"Mmm," Kevin agreed.
"That's only because I couldn't decide on which one of you to date, so I thought it would be a good idea not to date either of you."
Nina grinned, finally getting the shocked responses she was after.
KEVIN WEBER felt as though the neck of his white T-shirt had just shrunk three sizes, and he shifted the denim shirt he wore over it as he stared at the sexy blonde spilled over the couch like a satin sheet.
"What?" she asked with a wicked smile.
"Surely you both knew I was attracted to you."
She looked between them and then her gaze settled on Gauge.
In the past three years he'd been in a constant state of lust where Nina Leonard was concerned. It was more than the clingy black pants and tight white tops she favored, showing her curvy body to perfection. Often he'd catch her stretching after a long, busy day when she thought no one was watching; there was something about the feline way she contorted her body, the back arches that alternately brought her lush bottom up and the smooth, tight-tipped swell of her breasts out, that had caused the loss of more than a single night's sleep.
Nina Leonard was smart, talented and witty. She could indulge in an hours-long open criticism of the classics while she tried out her latest sweets recipe and then dive into the latest celebrity gossip without missing a beat.
He knew everything about her. From her favorite colordeep purpleto the fact that her family was from an old, downtown section of Detroit and that she had settled inAnnArbor after attaining her business degree from nearby University of Michigan. He knew that more than once she had burned a batch of her famous bear claws because she had her nose buried in one of those steamy romance novels, and that she preferred plain white underpants over thongs because wearing the latter found her constantly wiggling to try to remove what she called a permanent wedgie. (Now that had been a week to remember.)
And he knew that she considered him little more than an older brother she was constantly trying to fix up with one of her friends. She had once come straight out to ask if he was gay.
For the record, he wasn't.
And if he needed more reminders of that, all he had to do was think of the sudden tightness of his jeans when she admitted she'd been attracted to him.
Gauge slid him a knowing gaze. "We suspected."
Nina made a strangled sound. "You mean you guys talk about me in that way?"
"Of course we do." Gauge crossed his own arms over his chest; he wore a T-shirt as Kevin did, but without a denim shirt to dress it up. Today he'd chosen a faded dark-gray one that advertised an old heavy-metal rock band. "We are just men, after all."
Kevin said nothing; in fact, he was incapable of saying anything at all.